Friday, June 02, 2006

The Orwell Test: Seeing what's in front of your nose

"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." (George Orwell)

As is so often the case, Orwell articulated something that needs to be said. While the thought is a variation on the Emperor's New Clothes idea, Orwell strips it, so to speak, of metaphor. Our vision is so often obscured by preconceptions, ideology and misinformation, actually seeing the political realities in front of us isn't easy, especially here in Progressive Land, where ideology often clutters up attempts to discuss local issues.

In fact, even award-winning writers fail at that essential task. The SF Chronicle's John King was named the first recipient of the Urban Journalism Award by something called the Urban Communication Foundation in New York. King was given the award for his 2004 series of pieces in the Chroncile, "15 Seconds that Changed San Francisco," including an article on Octavia Blvd. in which he completely fails to see what's in front of his nose. 

One wonders if the folks at the foundation even came out to look at what King was writing about. King wrote the piece when the new Octavia Blvd. was still only visible in the architectural drawing genre, so one could say that he clearly perceived the drawings, I suppose. But he so much wanted to believe that a great new boulevard---not just a street, mind you---was being built in Hayes Valley that he was rendered blind to the realities of what was in store for that unfortunate neighborhood.

A few choice thoughts from the the award-winning articles:

The reason Hayes Valley triumphed[getting rid of the Central Freeway overpass] is that the anti-freeway faction presented a positive vision of an urban environment that allows traffic to move but lets a community flourish...Yet the gauge of success won't be whether drivers can barrel through at breakneck speed. It's whether they'll get where they are going with ease. And as they drive through, maybe they'll even wish for a moment that they lived there.

Yes, especially if they always wanted to live by a freeway. Whatever their vision was, the reality achieved by the "anti-freeway faction" is disastrous for that area, as all the traffic that used to use the freeway overpass is now coming through the heart of the neighborhood. 

Far from flourishing, that part of town is now becoming a kind of no-mans land for pedestrians, as the traffic sweeps across Market St. and speeds the four blocks to Fell St. and from Oak St. to the freeway ramp. And the little benches on the divider between the four lanes of freeway traffic are pathetic. ("Honey, let's go sit on those cute little benches and watch the freeway traffic.") But in King's mind the Vision is still intact, undisturbed by the Reality of all that traffic, as if the good intentions of those who created this horror validate the result.

King quotes the Planning Dept.'s John Billovits approvingly:

It's very unusual in the city to see people so accepting of change and of growth...But they fought so hard to get change, they recognize that change can be good...If you approve the livability of a single neighborhood, it improves the livability for the whole city...There's a ripple effect.

Conversely, if you make a neighborhood less livable---which is what's been done here---the ugliness ripples outward to the rest of the city. Now that the city, at the behest of the SF Bicycle Coalition, has also removed almost all the street parking from Market St. between Octavia and Van Ness, undermining the area's retail businesses, that whole part of town is becoming uglier and less livable. Change can also be bad---very bad. After all, cancer is a form of growth and change.

As if to demonstrate how out of touch he is with the real San Francisco, King provides this: 

Even before the earthquake, the ramshackle Victorian homes near Hayes Valley were attracting young professionals who couldn't afford gentrified addresses such as Noe Valley or the Castro. People also liked the convenience of being within walking distance of Union Square and the Financial District.

Union Square is at least two miles distant from Octavia Blvd., and of course the Financial District is even further away.

King continues to be blind to what he has helped promote on Octavia Blvd. As recently as two months ago, he was still talking about the great new boulevard in Hayes Valley.

Give Octavia Blvd. the Orwell Test: Go to that neighborhood and look at what is in front of your nose.

(The Orwell quote also graces the homepage of one of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Sullivan.)

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