ON THE AVENUES: Complete ventriloquism, or the stagecraft of “throwing” your two-way streets.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
It only seems like dinosaurs were roaming the earth when we first introduced the topic of two-way streets in New Albany.
We, as in us.
Let’s be crystal clear about the distinction.
It was so very long ago that Jeff Gahan was in political nappies, serving his first term as 6th district councilman. House of Bread, Main Street Grind and Federal Hill Cafe were still doing business, and New Albany’s downtown “renaissance” was but a glimmer in the eye of several dozen future entrepreneurs who were inexplicably eager to put their butts on the dotted line so Develop New Albany could take full credit for their investments.
However, let’s skip forward to more recent times.
By the winter of 2015, Jeff Speck’s Downtown Street Network Proposal (have you read it yet?) was complete, and three tepid, poorly managed public meetings had been held. By now amassing campaign funds as mayor, Jeff Gahan already was shunning any semblance of meaningful leadership on street grid reform, and a clear pattern was emerging.
Hushed private assurances of the mayor’s breathtaking two-way erudition would be issued just often enough to assuage timid supporters, but public indicators of his roadway engineering acumen were to remain safely hidden behind vague gestures, noncommittal bureaucratese and perpetually closed doors.
In March of 2015, the first “two-way” action undertaken by Gahan’s handpicked Bored of Works was to amputate a limb — in this instance, projected State Street bike lanes.
On month later, Speck’s proposals went into a deep freeze, destined for a coat of pleasant beige paint and the requisite Disneyfication required to make them acceptable to auto-centric suburban minds.
It seems that Team Gahan had determined there’d be no substantive discussion of two-way streets, complete streets or walkability during the mayor’s re-election campaign, which was undertaken on the basis of bright, shiny TIF lottery objects held aloft until the sun’s rays transformed them into talismanic holograms.
Hence, the 18-month “waiting period,” a concept never mentioned publicly until August 25, 2016, when it joined other freshly minted “buzz” phrases in an Orwellian pastiche of vapid jargon.
Naturally, the local chain newspaper never bothered to point out that HWC Engineering is the employer of David “Economic Development Director” Duggins’ wife.
Then again, nepotism’s just another four-syllable no-no in New Albany, where “big words” are outlawed via the only city ordinance graced with consistent enforcement. The mayor’s wife sits on the tourism board, and his son-in-law has a flood control sinecure. A brother-in-law seeks Ed Clere’s seat in the Indiana House.
In New Gahania, we’re just one big, happy family.
Not until August 25, 2016 did Team Gahan at long last emit a coherent public signal as to HWC’s ongoing progress in making unrecognizable sausage from Speck’s pristine, choice cuts.
During the intervening months, Gahan already had contradicted his previous claims by conceding (perhaps inadvertently) that whatever the future might hold for diluted two-way streets, nothing at all would happen until after tolling started at the end of 2016, with the sole exception of the “cars come first” Spring Street road diet between Vincennes and Beharrell.
Meanwhile, with City Hall constantly shielding its two-way intentions (if any) from public review or discussion, and with ambitious and sycophantic Democratic Party lackeys delighted to let us know how very close they were to the mayor’s thought processes, even if not one of them could be bothered to inform their constituents what any of it actually meant, some of them occasionally (accidentally?) divulged details otherwise not available to poor schmucks like us, out here on the one-way mean streets of Nawbany.
Greg Roberts: “After reviewing the Speck plan again, this project is following his recommendations almost to the letter, except for having both bike plans on one side. the unveiled plan shows one bike lane on each side. I think Greg (Phipps) is fighting for his district with a new rental registration proposed ordinance, two way streets project, getting street lamps fixed, housing, etc… In my opinion, some of Speck’s study was over kill on the bike lanes!!”
You’ll note that Roberts’ abrupt revelation of altered bike lanes came a full seven months prior to the hosanna-laden pronouncements of August 25, 2016. It must be nice to have the emperor’s ear, but the manner by which Gahan has artfully bought the silence of self-styled local progressives is a sad story that must be delayed until another day — perhaps after an 18-month waiting period.
Through it all, Gahan has been consistently praised by his guileless toadies in terms usually reserved for caliphs or communist party bosses; he’s the source of all insight, the fount of all useful knowledge and the Genius of the Flood Plain. Had Gahan not gone into local politics, he might have beaten Speck to the punch and authored a book on congestion, zoology or the fundamentals of artisan veneer.
Polymaths rule! Just ask Nicolae Ceausescu, but so much for that. We’ve observed John Rosenbarger on the job for four decades, and keeping this position has been the sole signal achievement of this underachieving tenure.
It’s also our principle civic legacy, though only in a roundabout way.
As you might have divined, I don’t trust Jeff Gahan.
I don’t trust Gahan to have the city prepared for tolling, to take complete streets and walkability seriously, or to be the heroic two-way street grid’s Great Reverter.
Gahn is no urban pioneer. He’s a suburban surface sheen surfer, and silk purses still do not emanate from those bacon-makers wallowing in slop over yonder.
Granted, on August 25, 2016 Gahan said many sensible things for attribution. The problem is, it’s the first time he’s ever said them aloud. Conversely, it has been our position from the start that if transparency and civic participation matter — and I think they do, very much — then the people of New Albany have been poorly served by the least communicative city hall team in memory.
And, moreover, if secrecy’s a bad idea for other projects from water parks to “luxury” balsa domiciles, it’s just as wrong for this one, even if — nay, especially if — it’s the one so many of us have advocated so passionately for so long a period of time, before Gahan and his ilk had the slightest knowledge of the issue.
It’s why I’m so very disappointed in those who have meekly accepted City Hall’s private assurances these past 18 months, and by doing so, assisted Team Gahan in maintaining the privacy fence around the two-way streets campaign, because even it we’d have been given the complete and unadulterated Speck at the end of a two or three year period, we’d have completely wasted the educational potential of this time span.
We might have been teaching our fellow citizens why streets matter, but instead, we’ve chosen to patronize them with subterfuge and game-playing. We simply cannot afford this many lost years in New Albany. If streets progress actually occurs, which is a labored coin flip at best, these 18 squandered months will make the process of familiarization even harder.
As former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan notes in her book Street Fight, and is reiterated in a video featuring Graceland Christian graduate William Riggs, confusion and objections to ideas like complete streets and two-way streets are overcome not by clak-and-dagger scheming in vape-filled rooms, but by openness — by involving citizens of all ages, and particularly young people.
We were on our way toward mobilizing participatory democracy like this via efforts like the Two Way Streets Now movement. For some reason, this drive stopped. I believe it was short-sighted to cease the overt activism.
For a year and a half, the impression I’ve consistently gotten from erstwhile complete streets advocates is that the down-low is all good; we must have faith and remain loyal party troopers because Big Daddy Jeff is going to make everything all right in the end, even if it means having a ready-made two-way “plan” handed to us, adulterated and desiccated, without any community involvement whatever.
Nothing that Jeff Gahan said for publication on August 25 changed my perspective. He merely read a few words off a teleprompter, and a scribe happened to be there to record them. Leopards don’t usually shed spots, and if Gahan genuinely believed what he was saying, how could he have spent the past two years posing (quite convincingly, I might add) as a ventriloquist’s dummy?
Though come to think of it, those were my words — weren’t they?