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Martin Luther King Jr. Mourns Trayvon Martin

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST

For you, son,
I dreamed a childhood
unburdened by hate;
a boyhood of adventure—
skinned knees and hoops,
first loves and small rebellions;
I dreamed you whole
and growing into your own
manhood, writing its definitions
with your daily being.
I dreamed you alive, living.

For you, America's African heir,
I dreamed a future
of open doors, of opportunity
without oppression,
of affirmation and action,
I dreamed Oprah and Obama
I dreamed Colin and Condoleezza
I dreamed doctors and dancers,
lawyers and linebackers, models,
musicians, mechanics, preachers
and professors and police, authors,
activists, astronauts, even,
all black as Jesus is.

I dreamed you dapper—
the black skin of you
polished to glow; your curls,
your kinks, your locs,
your bald, your wild,
your freshly barbered—
all beautiful.

I dreamed you wearing whatever the hell you want
and not dying for it.

For you, brother,
I dreamed a world softened
by love, free from the fear
that makes too-early ancestors of our men;
turns our boys into targets,
headlines, and ghosts.

I had a dream
that my children will one day live
in a nation where they will not be judged
by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character.

Sweet song of my sorrow.
Sweet dream, deferred.
For you, gone one, I dreamed
justice—her scales tipped
away from your extinction,
her eyes and arms unbound
and open to you
at last.

The Dark Arts of Foreign Influence-Peddling

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 12:01 PM PST

These days, it's never good news for Paul Manafort. On Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller released his latest indictment against President Donald Trump's one-time campaign chairman. It charged that Manafort "secretly retained" a small group of former European leaders to "act informally and without any visible relationship with the Government of Ukraine." Dubbed the "Hapsburg Group," this coterie of paid lobbyists allegedly worked to advance the interests of the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, in both Europe and the United States.

The group as a whole reportedly received at least $2 million for its services. It was led by "a former European chancellor," a person the indictment doesn't name but who has since been identified in numerous press reports as Alfred Gusenbauer. Gusenbauer, the former chancellor of Austria, has confirmed that he lobbied not on behalf of Yanukovych, but only for the cause of bringing Ukraine closer to the rest of Europe. He has not denied that he was paid for his services by a U.S. company. Reports have also alleged that another of Manafort's secretly paid lobbyists was Romano Prodi, the former prime minister of Italy and EU Commission president. In a statement, Prodi acknowledged working to bring the European Union closer to Ukraine, an effort that involved "numerous meetings and public speeches (some of them regularly paid), which took place in a variety of European capitals." In his statement, he denied "both to have played a role in any lobbying effort and to be part of a secret lobby," and added that he "did not receive any money for these activities."

If this latest indictment's allegations are proven true, what they reveal is just a tiny sample of how non-democratic powers buy the services of former Western officials to advance their agendas. In the process, these retired politicians often become enablers of kleptocratic and authoritarian individuals. Even worse, they put their credibility on the line to assist regimes antithetical to the democracies they once served.

Examples are now legion. Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, sold his services to Central Asian dictators. China is moving to enlist former Western leaders. Late last year, HNA, a Chinese conglomerate with close ties to the Chinese government, hired former German vice chancellor Philipp Rösler to run its foundation in New York. One Chinese billionaire with close connections to the Chinese Communist Party has secured the services of an ex-trade minister of Australia, who took a $680,000-a-year consulting job with him not long after leaving parliament.

One of the most high-profile cases is that of Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor of Germany. Last year, he became chairman of the board of Rosneft, Russia's state-backed oil company, supplementing his generous government retirement package handsomely. He also serves on the board of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, a venture owned by Gazprom, another Russian state-backed energy giant. Documents obtained by Der Tagesspiegel last December showed how Schröder recently brokered a meeting between Gazprom chairman Alexei Miller and Germany's economics minister.

There's nothing inherently illegal about providing such services. But it's another question whether it's wise. Schröder's role with Rosneft has arguably helped legitimize what amounts to the crown jewel of authoritarian state capitalism, and a key vehicle for Putin's exercise of power. For Putin, Schröder must be a handy mascot. Having him in the Kremlin's service could send a signal to European democracies: Your leaders are no more virtuous than the titans of kleptocracy in Russia that you despise. Putin thrives on such moral equivalence. When former leaders like Schröder and Blair promote the beneficiaries of authoritarianism and kleptocracy, they do real damage to liberal democracy.

To prevent such damage, open societies need clear, enforceable rules for their officials to commit to before taking the oath of office. The formal grace periods between the end of an official's public service and a career in the private sector that some countries have adopted are not sufficient. Democracies should require that officials sign legal declarations pledging never to work or lobby in any capacity for a foreign non-democratic government, or for a company headquartered in an authoritarian system. If they do work in the private sector, it's not asking too much for them to decline positions that amount to them simply selling access to their rolodex.

But the effort can't stop there. The new Manafort indictment alleges that his operation relied on a network of lobbyists, attorneys, offshore banks, and think tanks. This is a common pattern. Law firms and bankers often provide similar services well within the boundaries of the law. Think tanks like the "Dialogue of Civilizations Institute" in Berlin which is bankrolled by a close Putin ally and where Gusenbauer sits on the board, receive funding through legal channels. (The Institute denies any direct connection to the Kremlin.)

Mandatory transparency and awareness-building help leverage one of the key assets of open societies: the power of public debate. Exposing the tools that authoritarian influence-peddlers use could very well curb their freedom. One way to do this would be to compel consultants, along with public relations and accounting firms and other companies competing for public tenders and government contracts in the EU and the United States, to disclose any business relationship (past or present), with clients working on behalf of authoritarian states. Under such a system, lobbyists would also have to disclose such relationships, as would non-profits, sports clubs, faith groups, universities, and political parties.

In this context, law firms pose a particularly thorny challenge because of client confidentiality rules. The latest Manafort indictment alleged that a U.S. law firm received $4 million to write a report on the trial of Yanukovych rival Yulia Tymoshenko, among other things. There are other cases where former officials used their role as attorneys to lobby on behalf of clients representing authoritarian systems. As Der Spiegel detailed, Otto Schily, a former interior minister of Germany who now works as an attorney, represented the interests of the Kazakh regime, with his payment channeled through a Kazakh foundation that an Austrian court found to be a front group for the Kazakh intelligence service. Der Spiegel's report alleged his tasks mostly involved lobbying, not legal work in the strict sense.

Transparency rules can help to raise the costs for western enablers who currently have little to fear from the court of public opinion. But not all manners of influencing would be exposed through these transparency measures, especially influence-peddling operations run through clandestine political and financial channels (as was the case with Manafort). To expose all this, the public needs more cooperation "across the boundaries of journalism, academic and policy research," as researchers Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw have written. And where there are legal breaches, investigative authorities need to step in. The Mueller probe has shown what a well-resourced investigation can bring to light. "If one sends a team of 30 top-level prosecutors to any big lobbying or political consulting firm with international clients, there could be a lot of surprises," a person familiar with Manafort's operations told the Financial Times last year.

A key aim of the Mueller investigation is to shed light on the influence operations that tainted America's election in 2016. But the importance of what he's now alleging goes much broader than that. Getting to the bottom of the morass of authoritarian enablers like Manafort is now an essential front in the defense of liberal democracy worldwide.

'White Male Privilege' and Other Themes of Gun Culture

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 06:42 PM PST

Previously in this series:

Today, readers on the culture, psychology, and politics of regulating guns.

Really, pay attention to Australia—white-male privilege and all. Several previous messages have referred to Australia's modern experience with guns. In short: After the mass-casualty "Port Arthur massacre" of 1996, a conservative government (technically, the Liberal party) changed gun policy, and since then Australia has had its share of gun violence but no remotely comparable massacres. By contrast, the five deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, and 7 of the 10 worst, have all happened since 1996.

Earlier a reader in Melbourne described the experience of living with the normal range of urban concerns but not the fear of being shot. Another reader who emigrated to Australia writes:

I read your Melbourne reader's comment with intense empathy, because it exactly describes my experience.

I lived in the USA for almost five decades. From the age of 14 to 49, I owned my own guns. There was never a period in which I did not own a gun. I even put one to good use at the age of 15, throwing my mother's boyfriend out of the house after they argued. The gun in my hands made him leave. At various times in my adult life I would carry a pistol, when I deemed it appropriate.

When I immigrated to Australia of course I had to sell off my arsenal. By that point it was down to two pistols (my assault rifle had been stolen years ago).

After my first year here, I noticed there was something different. I felt odd, as if something were missing. It took a road-rage incident to realize it was the absence of fear. No matter how mad someone got at me, no one was going to shoot me. My three decades of martial-arts training would not be trumped by a drunk with three minutes of target practice. My choice to be engaged with the people around me, even when they seemed angry, would not put my life at undue risk.

The irony is that I know almost as many people here (2) that own guns as I did in the USA (3). Hunters and sport shooters can and do have guns. It does involve a fair amount of paperwork and some expense, but not materially worse than owning a car. But the guns are different: single-shot, small caliber rifles or shotguns, not assault rifles and automatic pistols.

Read On »

How the Supreme Court Could Reshape Employment Law

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 08:55 AM PST

During Neil Gorsuch's Supreme Court nomination hearing last year, then-Senator Al Franken asked the nominee whether he had read a recent New York Times series about the use of arbitration to thwart consumer complaints against corporations.

Gorsuch said he had. "It made me think about a little bit of history," he added. "It used to be back at common law that arbitration was disfavored because it was thought that everyone should go to trial, trials were the norm, Seventh Amendment and all that. And then in [1925] Congress passed a law called the Federal Arbitration Act … Congress expressed a judgment that people should arbitrate their disputes. It made a judgment, policy judgment in favor of arbitration, because it's quicker, cheaper, easier for people."

Gorsuch's reading of history is, as we shall see, doubtful; but he was echoing orthodox conservative legal thought. The Federal Arbitration Act, many conservatives believe, is a kind of super-statute, a legal big bang that was intended to transform the court system, changing the very meaning of "Seventh Amendment and all that." When originally enacted, the FAA was applied mostly to enforce agreements among businesses to settle their disputes out of court. But with the appointment of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court's view of the FAA has expanded. Over the past 30 years, the Court has interpreted the FAA to encompass consumer and financial-services contracts. Those decisions have deprived many small litigants—the kinds of people who buy cellphones, run restaurants, or pay home mortgages—of their day in court against giant corporations.

Now, the court is poised to apply the FAA to employment contracts in a way that may cripple employee challenges to wage, hour, working-conditions, and job-status disputes.

News coverage of labor matters at the Court has mostly focused on Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a challenge to public-employee unions that the Court will hear Monday. But the FAA case, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewisthe very first case the Court heard this term—is also a potential blockbuster. While Janus will affect one set of unions, Epic Systems may harm millions of Americans who work for wages, whether they belong to unions or not.

The issue in Epic Systems is whether employers can, as a condition of employment, require their employees to submit all work-related disputes to arbitration—and not simply to arbitration, but to individual arbitration, with no class or collective actions allowed. Indications are that the court will say that such employment contracts are allowed.

It will be a curious holding.

First, the FAA doesn't actually announce a "policy judgment in favor of arbitration"—or any policy statement at all. The act says only that contracts requiring arbitration of disputes "shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save up such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract." In other words, if two parties agree to settle contract disputes by arbitration, one party can't later back out—as long as the original contract was valid.

It will also be curious because such a decision would apply the FAA, passed in 1924, to override the National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935. Usually, in statutory cases, the later statute prevails over the earlier. Finally, the FAA's text doesn't contain a "policy judgment"—but the  NLRA's does: in 29 U.S. Code § 151 ("Findings and declaration of policy") "[i]t is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions of the free flow of commerce [by which the drafters meant labor disputes leading to strikes and lockouts] … by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining … "

The use of arbitration clauses in employment contracts has exploded. A September report by the Economic Policy Institute estimated that mandatory arbitration clauses now cover 60.1 million workers nationwide, and 24.7 million of them are covered by "class action waivers" like the ones at stake in Epic Systems. Until last year, the federal government opposed "class action waiver" arbitration provisions in employment contracts. The National Labor Relations Board is a party to Epic Systems, and a government brief last year asked the Supreme Court to hold the waiver clauses illegal.

But then came Trump; in June, the Solicitor General's office filed a new government brief taking the employers' side. In other words, the government filed a brief specifically arguing against its own earlier brief, and refused to argue on behalf of the NLRB before the court. The government's new brief proposed a new, narrow reading of the NLRA. Its protection of employee collective action extends only to "self-organization, association with labor unions, and collective bargaining," the government argued.

If adopted, this interpretation would narrow the scope of the NLRA almost to the vanishing point. The language of the act, in fact, goes far beyond union-related matters. Section 7, the heart of the act, says, "Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection … " One such "concerted activity" would be collective arbitration; another would be use of the courts to pursue "collective actions."

The tenor of oral argument suggests that a majority of the justices think the FAA sweeps aside the language of the NLRA. Why? I suspect it is a failure of historical memory. Judges in general tend to think they know a lot of history; judges in general, alas, usually know little and understand less. When the subject is American labor history, judges are at least as ignorant as the average American.

The Federal Arbitration Act was passed and signed in 1925, during the Coolidge Administration—a time hailed by many conservatives as a golden era of small government, big business, and an expanding economy. The National Labor Relations Act was a New Deal measure—product of a time conservatives regard as dark, disastrous, and illegitimate.

The two statutes thus arose from very different historical moments—but both have their roots in Manhattan's strike-torn Garment District. Beginning in 1909, New York's garment workers—many of them first-generation immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe—rebelled against the industry's sweatshop conditions. The workers' embrace of socialism terrified owners and also worried Progressive reformers, who saw an urgent need to teach them "American" ways of thought.

Under the leadership of future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Progressive reformers created the "Protocol of Peace," which designated expert private commissions to resolve labor disputes and also to regulate the industry as a whole. By adjusting prices, pay, and conditions in the "public interest," the "protocol" structure would, these reformers thought, prevent "destructive" competition among owners—and dangerous militancy among workers. "To many outside of the rank and file," historian Richard Greenwald wrote in his book The Triangle Fire, the Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York, "the Protocol was a magic bullet, an inoculation against class disruption and an 'uncivilized' economy."

One of the most important leaders of the "protocol" movement was a prominent lawyer named Julius Henry Cohen, who represented the owners; he would later be a major force behind adoption of the FAA—along with another management lawyer in the "protocol" period, Charles Bernheimer.

But many ordinary workers chafed under the paternal rule of the labor "experts"; and some major sweatshop operators refused to join in the "protocol" system. On March 25, 1911, one of those unorganized shops—the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, occupying three upper floors of a building on Washington Place in Greenwich Village—burst into flames when a stray match ignited poorly stored cotton scraps.

Workers on the ninth floor had been locked in by owners, as an "anti-theft" measure. They suffocated, burned to death, fell to the street from a collapsing fire escape, or jumped to their deaths to avoid the flames.

The death toll was 146, 123 of them women.

After the fire, historian Greenwald explained, the Progressive vision that birthed "protocolism" underwent a fundamental change. Voluntarism, private ordering, and harmony hadn't worked. It was time for reformers to invoke the coercive power of the state. The state of New York announced a State Factory Investigating Commission, which exposed the callous indifference to worker safety common in the unorganized factories.

The commission's chair and co-chair were state legislators Robert Wagner and his co-chair, Al Smith. The two, Greenwald wrote, were "obscure Tammany Hall hacks" when named to the commission. The commission's work, however, transformed both: Smith would be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1928, while Wagner, a labor champion in the U.S. Senate for two decades, sponsored the National Labor Relations Act, known also as the Wagner Act.

The FAA can be seen as a remnant of pre-Triangle fire "protocolism"—born out of the needs of merchant capitalists for a private, voluntary way of resolving disputes over contracts to manufacture, buy, and sell goods. As one proponent explained at the time it was considered, the "fundamental conception is to enable business men to compose their disputes expeditiously and economically … "

During the early '20s, the bill's sponsors repeatedly explained that the act would not cover labor matters.  Stanford  Law School legal historian Amalia Kessler told me, "It's pretty clear that [Charles Bernheimer, chief lobbyist for the Act and a 'protocol' veteran] was not eager to have his organization involved in labor arbitration." In Outsourcing Justice: The Rise of Modern Arbitration Laws in America, a comprehensive history of the FAA's drafting, Loyola University law professor Imre Szalai wrote, "The intentions behind the Federal Arbitration Act are clear with respect to labor disputes," he wrote. Arbitration clauses in employment contracts, he concluded, were not to be covered by the act.

Ten years later, the New Deal 75th Congress passed the Wagner Act. The decade between the two measures was a dark one: Coolidge-era prosperity collapsed into the Great Depression. Unemployment, about 4 percent in 1925, soared to nearly 25 percent in 1933, then subsided only to about 20 percent in 1935. Wages fell and working conditions deteriorated. Workers still on the job demanded union representation, better job security, and higher wages—and representation was often the hardest-fought issue. Electrical workers shed blood in the streets of Toledo, Ohio; longshoremen on the San Francisco waterfront paralyzed the nation's Pacific ports; and a Teamsters strike in Minneapolis-St. Paul was so turbulent that the state's governor placed the cities under martial law. Some sober observers worried that the United States was swirling into revolution or dictatorship.

Congress's response did not envision wise "experts" and avuncular harmony between capital and labor. Instead, the NLRA sought "labor peace" by requiring owners and workers to meet at the bargaining table. The Act, Georgetown University labor historian Joseph A. McCartin told me, was born out of "20 years of struggle around this issue"—the demand of workers that owners deal with them as a unit represented by a union they chose, not one by one. Wagner and the other sponsors, he added, "had an idea of what caused the Depression. … [I]t was inequality of bargaining power" between workers and owners. For that reason, the Act itself recites that

The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract, and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.

It's pretty clear that the workers in the current cases don't have "equal bargaining power" with their employers. In the three cases consolidated as Epic Systems, the companies made clear that the employees could sign the form contract or forget their jobs. There was no "bargaining," collective or individual.

To be clear, the employees in these cases aren't opposed to arbitration as such. They don't even oppose individual arbitration—if required by contract reached through collective bargaining. But, they argue, the NLRA means that employers don't have the unilateral right impose such contracts on them. Unless validly bargained away, they argue, class or collective actions are among the "concerted activities … for mutual aid and protection" the NLRA protects.

A win for the employers will impact all workers, unionized or not. But organized labor and its advocates are taking the potential threat seriously.

"A decision adverse to the employees will cripple enforcement of all federal and state minimum standards legislation that depends on private enforcement, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII (prohibiting employment discrimination), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, etc.," Craig Becker, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board who is now general counsel of the AFL-CIO, told me in an email. "Every well-counseled employer will require that its employees sign waiver agreements."


*A previous version of this piece stated that Amalia Kessler is a professor at UCLA; she is at Stanford. We regret the error.

Fire Escapes Are Evocative, But Mostly Useless

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 07:53 AM PST

Tony wooed Maria from one in West Side Story. Rosario Dawson belted from one in Rent. They became just another piece in a gritty urban jungle gym for the kids in The Get Down. Police procedurals regularly feature guys fleeing (or entering) by means of them.

Fire escapes, the clunky metal accessories to buildings constructed in response to industrial building-code reform, have become an iconic part of the urban landscape. They serve purposes as numerous as their pop-cultural cameos. Part emergency exit, part makeshift patio, the fire escape has played an integral role in shaping the development of the cities whose buildings bear them. It continues to impact the urban landscape today, in ways that few could have imagined when they were first thought up. And despite having been invented expressly for public safety, the fire escape always created as much danger as it replaced.


By the mid-19th century, New York City was overcrowded, oppressively loud, and unequipped to support the flood of new arrivals to the industrializing city. Cheaply built tenements stretched higher into the air than ever before, filled with people who worked in equally overfilled factories. These buildings were firetraps, made of cheap materials that burned easily. They grew more deadly the higher they climbed. When fires raged, there were typically only two forms of escape: narrow interior stairs, or the roof. The stairs sometimes burned away, as they did in an 1860 fire that started in a building's basement, where dry hay and shavings from a bakery's storeroom had ignited. Those who were trapped had only one option: to wait, hoping the overtaxed fire departments would turn up swiftly and with a ladder tall enough to reach the upper-floor windows. That is, before the building collapsed, or they were killed by the flames. "The burning building extended four stories above any of the surrounding structures," The New York Times wrote of the bakery fire. "It must have been instant death for any of the poor creatures on the upper floors to have jumped from the roof." Thirty people died in the blaze.

The body count spurred the creation of building codes. Deadly fires ripped through the tenements in the poorest and most underserved neighborhoods, wreaking havoc and taxing city resources. The population of New York doubled each decade from 1800 to 1880, and the scale of the challenges the city was facing was both monumental and unique.

The first rules were imposed in the early 1860s when the New York City Department of Buildings ordered the implementation of an additional form of egress on tenements with more than eight families above the first floor. Landlords didn't want to add a set of fire-resistant interior stairs, because such a structure would reduce the amount of rentable space. The simplest solution was to find a way to get people out through their windows. The order called for a set of iron or wood stairs affixed to the exterior of a building, but this wasn't enforced, and the concept of a "fire escape" was approached with a significant amount of creative license.

Some early renditions resembled the structures people know from West Side Story, but other types were also common. Some hid ropes and ladders in false refrigerators or bolted-down blanket chests to throw out of the window in case of emergency. There were pulley systems with baskets meant to lower tenants to the ground, and a patent was even issued in 1879 for a parachute hat, with an accompanying pair of rubber shoes, a solution that seems to trade the risk of flames for the peril of descent.


Early regulations in New York and Philadelphia paved the way for most major U.S. cities to enact fire-escape legislation by the 1890s. These two cities were growing (and dealing with problems) on a much larger scale than others of the time, so they set the pace for fire-escape safety. The real boon for fire escapes arrived in 1901, when a new set of regulations, passed with that year's revision to the Tenement House Act, defined the structure with greater precision. A "fire escape" would now require an extra set of stairs, either inside or outside of a building, that was fireproof. If external, they had to be on the street-facing facade, and there were strict rules about the size of the balconies, the angle of the stairs, and the connections between them.

There was a problem with these exterior fire escapes, however. They were (and remain) tempting to repurpose for everyday use. In the early 20th century, blocking fire escapes was punishable by a fine of up to $10 and 10 days in jail—no small sum in those days. But the risk didn't outweigh the benefits; fire escapes had already become an extension of tenants' homes. They were transformed into porches, gardens, no-cost storage units. They offered outdoor respite from the oppressive heat of city summers. Fires still seemed hypothetical, and interior space was at a premium. Why let such valuable square footage go to waste?

So city dwellers reshaped the fire escape, and in so doing it changed urban life. Fire escapes became makeshift jungle gyms for kids and offered a place to catch a breeze while hanging the wash to dry. Today it's uncommon to hear of people dying after rolling off of a fire escape in their sleep, but it's normal (if still illegal) to see fire escapes turned into vegetable gardens, smoking patios, and makeshift bike racks.


Repurposing fire escapes is one timeless tradition associated with these architectural structures. Another ritual: drawing the ire of landlords. When the 1901 restrictions required that fire escapes become larger, they had to cover more of a building's facade as a result. This created even more space for tenants to expand, while building owners worried that the fire escapes would reduce the value of their investments.

Yet with new fire escapes climbing up buildings like invasive ivy, it was some consolation to know that they would be a shared inconvenience. Hotels, factories, and schools also found themselves looped into the fire-safety trend, although hotels fought determinedly to shield their guests from what they argued were vacation-ruining additions. What guest, proprietors reasoned, would stay in a hotel that constantly reminded them of a potential catastrophe? Their initial solution—more of the cleverly hidden ropes—didn't work well for anyone, let alone ladies in long skirts. Eventually hoteliers were forced to adopt the metal structures. There is little evidence that any subsequent vacations were ruined.

Despite their claims to safety, even these heavy metal fire escapes failed quite frequently. A famous fire-escape disaster, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, took place at the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. On March 25, 1911, 146 workers, mostly women, were trapped by fire and died. The doors were locked, and the stairs were inaccessible, but a fire escape was present and should have provided egress for the workers. But it was so flimsy that the panicked workers who were able to reach it overloaded the structure. It peeled off from the building, trapping those above and sending the workers who had reached it plummeting toward the street.

There have always been questions about how much urban dwellers can trust external fire escapes. A New York Times editorial published on March 21, 1899, worried that they offered "little or nothing" in the way of precaution. "A burning tinderbox is no safer for being [enclosed] in a cage of red-hot ladders," the editorial continued. By 1930, fire escapes were still being constructed, but few people saw them as safety devices first. They had become architectural accessories that might be repurposed for escape, not the other way around.

Even so, for nearly a century the exterior fire escape persisted as the preeminent mode of fire safety for mid-rise buildings in American cities, especially the nation's oldest, like New York and Philadelphia. But few pedestrians today may realize that much of the iron and steel that hangs above their heads on city streets is often original. A 1968 change in New York building codes banned the construction of external fire escapes on almost all new buildings. What is there now has been there for a long time. The metal vines have seen the city grow, seen it change, and they have played an integral role in its evolution. The seeds of contemporary New York germinated on fire-escape balconies and grew below their entwining shadows.


It suggests a question: Are fire escapes structures significant to a part of the city's history to qualify them for historical designation and protection? Most fire escapes have the sharp edges of utilitarian simplicity, but many are ornate works of decorative art designed to be functional jewelry, albeit for urban infrastructure. In a 2006 graduate thesis on historic preservation, Elizabeth Mary André describes a 2003 hearing of the Historic Districts Council of New York before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, where fire-escape advocates made their case. The fire escapes on a street in the Tribeca East Historic District were not original to the buildings, but they were deemed a key part of the New York landscape, worthy of protection. In this neighborhood, mentions of "historic fire escapes" in the Landmarks Preservation Commission records go back at least to 1992. Similar debates are taking place across the country, including San Jose, California; Cumberland, Rhode Island; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Seattle, Washington.

The architect Joseph Pell Lombardi is passionate about conserving historic structures. But Lombardi made headlines in 2015 when he clashed heads with the pro-fire-escape crowd. After being issued initial permission to remove fire escapes from two historic buildings in New York's SoHo neighborhood, he was ordered to stop after tenants complained that removal of the escapes would make the building unsafe.

When I asked him, Lombardi insisted that the fire escapes that were in question are "very different than the fire escapes that are on late-19th-century buildings, and they do detract from the historical aspects of the building." As post-regulation add-ons, they didn't keep with the ornate style of the building's facade—they were simply thrown up to comply with code. More importantly, he argued, they aren't reliable even if maintenance is regularly performed. Fireproof stairs are preferable, but with external fire escapes still so common, people sometimes feel unsafe without them. Eventually, Lombardi was forced to give in to pressure from the tenants, but he has successfully removed fire escapes from at least three other historic buildings. In all cases, Lombardi says, a better form of egress was supplied.

André disagrees with Lombardi's assessment about the historical significance of fire escapes. "The rationale that the fire escape is not original to the facade," André writes, "fails to consider the nearly 150-year history the building has undergone behind its iron mask." In historic preservation, the significance of a structure or its elements changes over time, and some of those changes themselves become historically significant. Fire escapes weren't original to many 19th-century buildings, but they might have initiated new historical significance through their later addition to them.


Historic or not, it does seem like the age of the fire escape is coming to an end. Marco A. Dos Santos, the owner of Atlantic Ironwork Restoration in Ludlow, Massachusetts, estimates that he's installed only 10 new fire escapes during a decade in business. Repairs to existing systems, he tells me, are constant and costly. But full replacements are exorbitantly expensive, and rarely allowed anyway. Many local city building codes, including those in New York, allow for the maintenance of the existing exterior balcony fire escapes, but put strict limitations on erecting new ones.

The most common issues with these existing structures, according to Stu Cohen, the founder of the City Building Owners Insurance Program, are the same ones that have plagued them from their earliest implementation: lack of maintenance and human obstruction. "Over time," Dos Santos says, "no one has been taking care of these systems because they don't want to put money into it." They are infrequently used for their designed purpose—if ever—so there is no sense of urgency, and a glut of deferred maintenance. The results can be deadly.

Rust and corrosive oxidation eat away at the structures and can destroy the bolts that keep them affixed to a building. Collapses are not uncommon, and when they happen the results are tragic, as powerfully captured in the 1976 Pulitzer Prize–winning photo "Fire Escape Collapse." Since the 2014 collapse of a fire escape in Philadelphia left one man dead and two women injured, Dos Santos has been flooded with requests for repair estimates. Building owners will spend upward of $60,000 to bring their fire escapes up to code. The desire to avoid harm, liability, and citation could change both regulatory and maintenance practices across the country.

On February 18, 2018, a man died after being hit on the head by a falling piece of a fire escape while walking in the very SoHo neighborhood where exterior fire escapes had initially developed and matured, where Lombardi has fought to remove them, and where they remain today. Fire escapes, initially invented to save people from danger, have become the cause of new peril.

And yet, to many people, fire escapes still offer a promise of safety. Following the Grenfell Tower Fire in London, which resulted in the deaths of 71 people, there was a call for the installation of exterior fire escapes on large apartment blocks as a way of reassuring the residents of high-rise apartment buildings. More generally, the mythology of the fire escape probably makes it feel like a security crutch, even for people who never intend to use one. Given improvements in building codes, construction, and manufacturing practices, today a fire escape is more likely to cause harm than to prevent it. A place for a romantic rendezvous can quickly become a coroner's scene.

"Arguably, no other form of emergency egress," André writes, "has impacted the architectural, social, and political context in metropolitan America more than the iron balcony fire escape." It's a bold claim, but not an entirely incredible one. Fire escapes encapsulate 150 years of city life in America, touching immigration, industrialization, public safety, popular culture, daily life, and urban mythology. The fire escape is antiquated and vestigial, but it also represents, in a way, the beginnings of architectural modernism. The harsh lines of these utilitarian metal structures anticipated the straight edges of the glass-and-steel skyscrapers that would erupt around them. Like so many aspects of the modern city, the fire escape promises a better, safer future. And yet, it also can't be counted on to follow through.

The Forgotten Everyday Origins of ‘Craft’

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 04:00 AM PST

In his new book Craeft, the archaeologist and BBC presenter Alexander Langlands offers a fascinating and surprisingly relevant dive into a subject that might seem niche to many—the origins of traditional crafts in medieval Europe. The reviews, by and large, have been enthusiastic. But some of the article headlines present a curious opening argument for the work. A short write-up in The Guardian is introduced, "Craeft review—not just a load of old corn dollies." In The New York Times Book Review, a thoughtful piece by the renowned graphic designer Michael Bierut is similarly branded, "Before Glitter and Glue Sticks, Craeft."

You've probably encountered this cliché before: Something in the news—perhaps a sea of handmade Pussyhats—is "not your grandma's knitting." The word "craft" can seem to demand an apology or clarification: a reminder that no serious, technically accomplished endeavor should ever be confused with the homespun. For decades, academics have explored the ways in which traditionally domestic and feminine pursuits (as well as the creative traditions of communities of color and of artists in the developing world) tend to be dismissed as "craft," as distinct from "art" or "design." In Craeft's introduction, Langlands quotes the late, eminent furniture designer David Pye, who because of this divide once characterized craft as "a word to start an argument with."

So if "craft" is guaranteed to start a fight, what is "craeft," exactly? To understand this, it helps to know a bit about Langlands's backstory. He's trained as an archaeologist and specializes in Anglo-Saxon Britain; but he's better known to viewers of British TV from his role as a presenter on the BBC's historic farms series, including titles like Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm. Langlands's television experience appears to have inspired him to view archaeology more experientially than he had before. Not content to unearth artifacts and speculate about how an ancient object might have been made, or who might have owned it, he's intrigued by how things were used, and what it might have been like to work with them in historical context.

For Langlands, the Anglo-Saxon word "craeft" is distinct from our modern word "craft" in spirit and in practice. "Craeft" means having the wisdom of one's surroundings, understanding nature and the seasons, and knowing one's materials, as well as how objects and systems fall apart. To illustrate the point, Langlands's book offers a bewitching virtual tour of life in Medieval England. Describing his happy first experience with filming Tales From the Green Valley (part of the historic-farms series), Langlands writes:

I was spending nearly every single hour of every day immersed in historical farming. I was tending, ploughing, scything, chopping, sweeping, hedging, sowing, walling, slicing, chiselling ... the list is almost endless. Most significantly, I was watching with an archaeological eye how my actions were altering and reconfiguring the material environment around me.

This, in a nutshell, is what's at the heart of Craeft: It's vignette after charming vignette of ancient processes, described in exuberant detail as Langlands travels through Spain, France, England, Scotland, and Iceland. Readers get a richly atmospheric peek into "craefts" like the thatching of roofs, the spinning of wool, and the tanning of hides.

Landlands's discussion of how the modern word "craft" acquired its cultural baggage begins with language. When the term "craeft" first emerged in England during the middle ages, it connoted power, physical strength, and skill. But as early as 1200, it began to mean "cunning" or "sly." (Even today a weaselly person might be called "crafty.") Later, perhaps due to its association with "power," it also began to hint at the supernatural, as in "witchcraft." But none of this quite explains why, today, outlets reviewing Langlands's book feel the need to reference "corn dollies," as if preempting reader judgment about a word that once just described a sphere of activity, like "technology" or "food." And Langlands doesn't quite fill in this gap.

He does provide a lively history of the Arts and Crafts movement that originated in mid-1800s Great Britain and flowered in North America, which industrialized later during the Gilded Age. Langlands highlights, among other things, the movement's connections to progressive politics (William Morris, of floral-wallpaper fame, was an ardent socialist). Nineteenth-century English design reformers like Morris and John Ruskin believed workers should have the satisfaction of creating goods from start to finish, rather than just toiling endlessly on single parts of things. The movement's central irony is that the economics of the craftsman ideal don't work: Then, as now, most people cannot afford to solely buy goods that have been handmade by a well-paid individual. Accordingly, Arts and Crafts masterpieces, like Tiffany silver, are more apt to be found in museums—hardly the realm of the humble glue stick.

Which brings us back to "craft": Apart from its use as a marketing term for, say, microbrews, the word today doesn't usually connote a skilled trade. Unlike "working," "crafting" is commonly understood as fun: It can be self-consciously silly, feathered, decoupaged, and brightly colored. It's fun for kids and meditative for grownups. In most cases, the product of a crafting session is less important than the relaxing process by which it was made. This is the case not only because mass production has trained consumers to value the widespread affordability of manufactured goods. It's also because industrialization permanently altered how people understand work, leisure, and time. Craft is leisure, but it's terribly efficient: It provides the satisfaction of transforming a stack of materials into a tangible, recognizable finished object, often by way of a therapeutically repetitive process. Craft's magic trick is that it's play that's been designed to look like work.

Hard as it may be to believe now, there was a moment not so long ago when social reformers were worried that people had too much free time. The rational measures of work that are often taken for granted today were unfamiliar concepts when the U.S. and Great Britain first industrialized. The notion that work had an "on/off" switch didn't come naturally to people whose work lives had largely been governed by the seasons and the rhythms of the agricultural calendar. The natural consequence of the factory clock was the advent of recurring blocks of unplanned time in workers' schedules, which posed a challenge: What was one to do? And if one wasn't a laborer, but a 19th-century moral scold concerned with public vices like gambling and drinking, what was there to do in one's off hours?

Plenty, according to the historian Steven Gelber, whose book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America chronicles the rise of what he terms "productive leisure." "Hobbies developed as a category of socially valued leisure activity ... because they bridged the worlds of work and home," Gelber writes. While hobbies appeared to provide a break from the office and factory life, Americans' cultural aversion to idleness demanded a sense that one always be busy in some fashion. Enter craft, or "craeft" as metaphor.

Craft began to thrive during the 1910s and '20s in the classroom, too. The little-known but highly influential Scandinavian philosophy of sloyd, first outlined in 1865, turned the study of craft into something resembling one of the liberal arts by arguing that such projects could build students' characters and intellects. Likewise, the educator and philosopher John Dewey privileged the benefits of making of things over the quality of a finished object. Craft instruction began to animate  classrooms and summer camps alike.

By the 1930s, toy companies were producing hobbycraft kits by the thousands; magazines promoted activities like furniture and carpentry for men, knitting and sewing for women, and beading and pottery for kids. Craft kits were packaged with supplies, instructions, and patterns. Rather than true "craeft," kits are closer to assembly. The convergence of "process over product" educational theory and the hobbycraft industry is what doomed the word "craft" to associations with the unserious and unskilled. Where the word had once connoted expertise and skill, even supernatural abilities, by the mid-20th century, it had become an instant signifier of amateurism.

What Langlands is advocating for in his book is more widespread knowledge about the time when craft was integral to daily life. In the era he studies, activities like beekeeping  weren't escapes from reality, but essential to it. He also smartly notes that neither "craft" nor "craeft" is a synonym for "working with one's hands." At its root, the word "manufacture," which is associated with mass production, means "to make by hand." Most of the cheap goods we buy are made at least in part by people. The reason assembly isn't "craeft," to follow his logic, is that the final form of an assembled object is predetermined, requiring no ingenuity or material wisdom.

In Craeft, Langlands calls for living and working with awareness of our environments, materials, and challenges in real time. We don't have to quit our jobs and start keeping bees in order to do this. Every architect thinking through climate-change-resilient design is applying "craeft" logic to their work; so are chefs who source all their produce locally, and jewelers who use only reclaimed gems and metals. We need not be literal about "craeft" to enjoy its benefits, or to see how it might benefit the world. Sometimes, a metaphor is the right tool for the job.

Chronicles of Civic Engagement: The Leafblower Battle in D.C.

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 02:15 PM PST

Back in the fall of 2015, in the midst of travels around the country in which my wife, Deb, and I saw countless examples of citizens taking responsibility for changing their own communities, I mentioned a specific way Deb and I intended to apply the lessons of what we'd seen. As the first item in this series explained:

Over the past two years, Deb and I have been increasingly impressed by the importance, vitality, difficulty, and effectiveness of local-level activism in the cities we've visited across the United States. We've interviewed and written about the people who are committed to changing the texture of life—and have!—in Sioux Falls, or in Fresno or San Bernardino, or in Greenville, or in Eastport or Duluth or Columbus or Allentown or Burlington or Redlands or Pittsburgh.

They have done it. What about us?

What about the place where our children were born and where they finished high school, where we own a house and have lived for more years than anyplace else: Washington D.C.? Don't we have an obligation to keep pitching in too? The District is the site of national / international struggles but also of intense local involvement. Over the years, our local involvement has been mainly with our immediate neighborhood and with youth sports leagues and the public schools, when our children were there.

One way in which we got involved was to join a group of neighbors trying to bring the nation's capital up to speed with a growing number of other cities, in phasing out use of the (obviously) noisy, but also surprisingly dangerous, polluting, environmentally destructive, and technologically outdated piece of machinery known as the gas-powered leaf blower. Dozens of cities have already done this, and the pace is increasing. A recent example is Key Biscayne, Florida, which mandated a shift to cleaner, quieter battery-powered equipment—and gave lawn-maintenance companies a whole 180 days to comply.

So over the past two years, or the parts of it when we've been in D.C., we have met with our neighbors and friends for the unglamorous but weirdly satisfying slog of trying to change minds and organize support for local legislative action. Specifically, we've been urging the District Council to consider and pass a bill proposed by Council Member Mary Cheh, which would phase out gas-powered leaf blowers over the next few years. (You can read its text here.)

The enjoyable part has been regular meetings of our little group of allies, over muffins and coffee at one or another of our houses. It has also meant talking with experts on air pollution, noise pollution, lawn maintenance, engine-design, regulation-enforcement, and other issues, from all around the country. Plus preparing testimony for City Council appearances. Calling council members one by one, and going downtown to for discussions with them (or first, usually, their staffers). Arranging and attending demos of new clean-tech lawn equipment. Raising money to support a website and informational videos. Going to local citizen forums to explain the issue. Learning about the regulatory thickets that apply in most U.S. states but are different in California (which has more leeway, under federal clean-air regulations, to set its own standards) and Washington D.C. (which has less leeway on almost everything than "real" states do, as attested by our "Taxation Without Representation" D.C. license plates.)

The most important work of all, done mainly by one of our colleagues and described more fully below, has been going from one Advisory Neighborhood Commission to the next, explaining the arguments, and getting commissioners to vote in favor of changing the District's policy.

This item, which will be the last in the series in this space, is an account of what has happened since then, what comes next, and where further online updates can be found.


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