Smaller & Taller: Fairness to Fellow Chicagoans

February 9, 2023

A look at our common humanity

We begin the fourth of five with a paradox to learn from: In a quest for absolute creative freedom, Portland, Oregon, slows movement and unintentionally obstructs emergent collective accomplishments. Where are the inspiring initiatives?

Sure, Portland jettisoned 20th-century City Planning 40 years ago with their “Growth Boundary,” but with the knowledge of hindsight, isn’t that just a little exclusive? Maybe too… club-y? Freakishly similar to the unfairness of W. Bush’s proclamation: US versus THEM?

Societies are built not through individual genius but through people’s collective accomplishments. Chicago can learn from Portland in ways different than Mayor Daley’s flower planting campaign, which refused to acknowledge the vastly different climate in volcanic Portland: Warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters; just the opposite of the Great Plains’ effect on Chicago’s hot, humid summers and cold, dry winters.

Portland’s Growth Boundary and reconstruction of a 19th-century streetcar system reflect its odd and highly centralized governance system. Centralization allows Portland’s elite to initiate plans and effectively build. Indeed after Portland cost-effectively and quickly completed its streetcar system, Seattle tried, failed, and tried again, spending more than double on their system for the same result. The drawback to Portland’s form of governance is that any peccadillo of the elite becomes the next “thing” or potentially the next folly.

Portland’s Growth Boundary did not contribute new technology. The recent economic engine of metropolitan Portland is in the suburbs of Beaverton and Hillsboro: Billions of Intel, Nike, and Columbia investments are located over the west hills, prospering outside Portland proper. And the streetcar system is exceedingly slow, limiting its use to those with plenty of time (or those with no consciousness of time). Portland’s political elite chose not to learn and improve from Chicago’s el: Get speedy traffic off the street. These two 1980’s initiatives were derivative and nostalgic, with Portland’s political elite attempting to recreate a mythical past, along with rampant American post-modernism.

Misused centralized power eliminates a fairness to fellow residents. Their motto “Keep Portland Weird” is so… well, it is as if mandated by a centralized authoritarian. Another famous Portland resident asked people to “think different,” implying others think for themselves. Collective accomplishments emerge from the social perceptiveness that emerges from repetitive interactions, where people gain a sense of being in a specific context. By contrast, with most voters disenfranchised by the elite doing whatever they choose, the energy in Portland is individualized, rebellious, frivolity. Defiant, but not leading to collective improvements. Oh, sure, they tore up, then ‘tagged’ downtown Portland in the last few years, but that is not thinking differently: Every so-called progressive city did that. The lasting effect is just fewer businesses.

In a knee-jerk response to the business community, centralized governance adds more laws and micro-management of people’s movements. This only spirals downward with residents’ increasing apathy: Now they have people in reflective vests on streetcars who clearly state they are not police and cannot kick people off the train but are there to make one feel safe. The existence of such helpless officials, with their pronouncements, reflects a problem that officials refuse a solution.

Individualized apathy is the side effect of obstructive elite political power. Centralized micro-management is visible in Portland’s transportation. For a city that idolizes bicycles, they have streets in the busy city that forbid bicycles. They have signs for pedestrians to use the sidewalk and multicolored lanes for different kinds of vehicles, although none yet for new electric unicycles.

Perhaps a new color will be chosen, by the authorities, for motorized skateboards. Imagine lanes for every class of vehicle, where most lanes are empty because there are so many types of vehicles. It is the excessive proliferation of micro-control. Interestingly more signage delivers a feeling of speed, an old 20th-century phenomenon, without actual progress. Are humans becoming automatons?

Automatons can operate according to infinite rules because they are binary. Automatons can even act according to continuously changing regulations. Asking computer scientists about the limits of control, we discover Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans by Melanie Mitchell from Portland, who does fantastic research on the limits of AI. She documents the remarkable differences between automatons and humans.

Instead of urban design’s attention to surface or transportation planners’ desire for micro-control and more signage, the salient idea is that humans navigate, not by rules, but by fairness. William Whyte researched pedestrian traffic in New York City back in the 1970s. His iconic work documented how a natural flow of humanity, appearing about to collide, would naturally, skillfully, and gracefully weave through each other in the fast-paced life on Manhattan’s sidewalks.

These same phenomena, where people navigate traffic through fairness, are currently exhibited in Asia, where scooters and trucks trade spaces, ensuring positive traffic flow. And note that Asia is building many collective accomplishments, including livable mega-cities.

But that is just limited to transportation; we aim at acknowledging fellow people and our shared need for influence or, minimally, self-esteem. Undue micro-management reflects a desire to control and dominate. Flowing influence and flowing traffic is the recognition that all of us share the public space and acknowledge each other’s presence. Of course, we won’t agree on viewpoints, but we can recognize everyone thinks differently.

Collective accomplishments in our neighborhoods are prohibited by centralized micro-management because the elite unknowingly prevents emergent initiatives. Finding fairness with our fellow residents allows alternative initiatives bounded by the people most frequently interacting in an identifiable place. Higher-level governance structures must relinquish controls and let the well-framed local flavor proliferate.

Portland’s governance has no local-level officials like Chicago’s alderpeople, alderwomen, and aldermen, who historically had the local-level initiative. Today Aldermanic influence has diminished in Chicago, with the net effect becoming similar to Portland, lacking local character where centralized micro-management reigns.

In Chicago after the future, this week we find Kid spending the day within the home Village, some 60 floors above the streets. Kid takes an online class in the morning and then works in the afternoon, all walkable among neighbors: Oranges arrive once a week at the plaza outside our building. They come from places all over the world, depending upon the month.

With some toast in the morning, I am ready for my math class. Ms. Mirzakhani teaches our online course and helps us to recognize patterns in numbers.

She says there is no particular recipe for developing new proofs... It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck, you might find a way out. I work diligently to complete my homework while eating lunch at home.

After lunch I look out the window and see so many people in our city, some are rich and some are poor. This is a pattern about math, I can see people and sense the proportion of rich relative to the proportion of poor. Somehow it is a feeling that affects how we interact with each other.

After lunch, I slowly take the elevator to the Fifth Village Above where I count and restock items for a company that makes techno-widgets. They are quite valuable, but to me they are just things to count. Many people get off the elevator and I head up the stairs to the factory. A teenager is protesting that the sky is falling. Connecting patterns, I remember the story of Chicken Little, my grandmother read to me. And I just don't really feel, like, in the mood to hear it, and so I just walk on.

Chicago humanity on Daley Plaza remains symbolized by a communist: Picasso. Somehow, in a bygone era, even a machine was able to create a collective monument to fairness. Certainly it was not a monument to political correctness, nor to elite dominance. Where will we find Chicago’s humanity in the next 50 years?

Let’s bring some fairness to our fellow Chicagoans, to our shared streets, neighborhoods, districts, and surrounding cities, after all, we are not automatons. Rich and poor, we share this town with whomever chooses to stay. Let’s see if we can return some national funds back here, in the places where we live, to build and increase Chicago's collective intelligence.

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