Sadness quickly turns to madness when the loss of one of our sons and brothers is minimized and coded away in polite legal terms with no intention of returning what was taken, no attempt at apologizing for the damage done. Life meets death in the streets, where walking, shopping, driving, talking, playing on the playground or listening to music can be deadly these days… just being black in America.
The flames erupting in Ferguson are the fires burning in the hearts of mothers of black sons in this nation. We cry for the life nurtured inside us those nine months, for the years of tending and mending our child, for the brief pride we felt in his manhood before the light left his eyes. We tell our sons to walk with both eyes open, hands visible and quick feet ready to run. We advise them to keep receipts for everything they purchase, speak politely and dress sensibly. We hoped that the toil of our ancestors would have freed them from the curse of these limitations and the threat of harm, and we dreamed that we would never awake to feel this pain.
Yesterday I went to the Spokane Transit Authority board meeting where the “task force” of concerned business owners — led by Greater Spokane Incorporated, Visit Spokane and Downtown Spokane Partnership — gave their opinion on how STA should use its Plaza.
The task force’s recommendations were mostly in line with STA’s existing plans, but they diverged in one hugely significant way. Rather than expanding the Plaza to bring in the community and create greater connectivity for non-transit users, they advocated the opposite.
The task force’s plans will never achieve their desired effect because you can never restrict use in public spaces enough to get rid of the parking lot pee-er.
Let me paint a picture of the space in which he was peeing: It’s a surface lot on a stretch of Howard that has almost no street-level retail. It’s also near the train tracks. No one purposefully walks around there unless they have very specific business in one of the handful of buildings on the block. And even then, people drive up, park as close to their destination as possible and shuffle quickly indoors.
I’ve seen people get in their cars and drive from one side of the tracks to the other.
I’ve never felt unsafe in this lot or on the street itself. It’s just ill-suited for pedestrians and starved for destinations. As a result, I have only ever had neutral, negative or just weird experiences on that stretch of road. No one besides our parking lot pee-er hang out there because, besides the beautiful new SUMAC mural under the trestle, no one has given those blocks a second thought for maybe a decade.
Conversely, all the traits that make it a bad place to hang out and have positive experiences is exactly what makes it such a prime place to drive up and find some random dude peeing. It’s secluded and empty of people.
We all recognize the STA Plaza currently suffers from usage woes. It’s a big space without much going on, and big spaces that are empty of people are hard to secure. Both the STA’s plan and the task force’s plan seek to solve this problem, but in opposing ways.
The STA wants to increase amenities to open usage to the entire community, offer more opportunities for engagement and make the Plaza a gathering place. The task force is asking STA to narrow the Plaza’s feature set to only the sorts of things bus riders absolutely need.
The problem with that plan, of course, is that the Plaza is still a public space. Even if you reduce the use to basically nothing, people are still free to hang out.
We know what public spaces with low use look like. They look like the parking lot near Fellow. They look like the stretch of Wall between Riverfront Park and Riverside. They look like the slope of hillside below the Post Street substation.
We also know how to make those places safer: make them more engaging. We turn an unused hillside into Huntington Park. We plan events to offset the lack of retail on Wall.
The crazy thing here is that DSP, GSI and Visit Spokane have all recognized this. DSP was absolutely instrumental in helping Terrain put on Bazaar, the art market we launched this June on a disused stretch of Wall St. I’ve had conversations with folks at Visit Spokane about their desire to drive tourism by activating public squares all around the city. All three entities were enthusiastic supporters of our recently passed park bond.
They totally understand the vision!
I worry though, that because of the fraught, 20-year political history of the project, and the pressure being exerted by certain downtown businesses, no one is recognizing that the Plaza has the exact same potential for activation as Huntington Park or Wall Street. Honestly, I think it has an even greater potential, because it’s indoors and is already the nexus of our transit system.
Let me be the person who says this: Good as it is, I don’t think STA’s plan goes far enough.
One of the greatest revitalizations of a public space I know of is the transformation of Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square from a squat parking garage in the middle of the city into a thriving meeting place.
They did it with smart planning aimed at attracting the greatest diversity of people possible — just like STA has done — but then they went further: creating a separate entity to program the space, filling it with cool stuff a couple hundred times a year. Now it’s the home of concerts, festivals and events, a hub of downtown Portland, and a big tourist attraction.
Now imagine how it would feel if a tourist or business traveler coming to Spokane for the first time grabbed the shuttle from the airport, rode downtown and found themselves disembarking onto an art market, or a free concert, or just a bustling place with a diversity of people and a diversity of shops.
Isn’t that the sort of town you’d want to explore? Like, “Wow, if their bus Plaza is crackling like this, what must their clubs be like? Their restaurants? Their neighborhoods?”
Then who better to ferry that person around to those destinations than, you know, STA itself. The word “synergy” gets thrown around, but come on now.
Now imagine that same tourist getting off the shuttle to a Plaza renovated according to the task force’s specifications: a smaller, more utilitarian space for the workmanlike ferrying of people from place to place, with maybe an employment office in one corner.
At any other time than peak hours, the space would feel empty and maybe a little alienating. If that tourist had to spend any time waiting for a transfer in the task force’s version of the Plaza, I honestly ask myself who he or she would run into.
It’s still a public space, even if no one’s using it, so the only person I’d put money on is that smiley guy from the parking lot, making the most of the solitude to take a quiet pee in the corner.
Luke Baumgarten is the interim co-executive director of Spokane Arts, a cofounder of Terrain, the founder of Fellow Coworking and former culture editor of the Inlander. He tweets @lukebaumgarten.
How To Get Away With Murder, despite nearly every character acting the sneering villains the college comedy slackers would humble with a crazy prank, is shaping up to be one of the most enjoyable new shows. It’s got that shamelessly dramatic dialogue, monologues and plot-twists of the best guilty pleasures.
But almost immediately, it has a big flaw stuck into the very structure of the show: It gives us brief “flash-forwards” into a scene where the characters appear to be hurriedly covering up a murder.
The flash-forward gimmick is hardly a new one.
How To Get Away With Murder’s device is an almost exact ripoff of one of the worst parts of another legal thriller, Damages. That show parceled out the narrative in the present with brief glimpses of the future — horrible things happening to an ambitious legal mind due to her involvement with a take-no-prisoners female mentor. (How To Get Away With Murder distinguishes itself by giving us glimpses of horrible things happening to multiple ambitious legal minds due to their involvement with a take-no-prisoners female mentor.)
It’s a device that’s been used in shows like Lost, Breaking Bad, and How I Met Your Mother. And it hurt every one of them.
Heck, there was even a television show called FlashForward that made this the entire premise – that everyone on earth sees a vision of themselves from the future — and it buckled and collapsed under the strain almost instantly.
The temptation for a writer to put a flash-forward in a pilot is understandable. It’s a promise: This is how crazy things will get. It’s supposed to be like your friend saying, "Hey, stick with it, the show gets really good around episode 22."
But flash-forwards ultimately are more like skeevy payday loan operations: They borrow interesting narrative from the future to spend in the present. And the interest rates are downright predatory.
To expand on that: One of the most enjoyable parts of watching TV is asking two fundamental questions: 1) What is happening now? 2) What will happen next? Yet a flashforward spoils the answer to #2 and makes the answer to #1 feel irrelevant. Both questions are replaced with “How does the story get from A to B?” (Or A to Z.) That’s not a mystery or an adventure. That’s a MapQuest printout.
A flashback is problematic because it kills narrative momentum by taking us out of the present. Why would I care about what happened six months ago? I want to know what’s happening now. But flash-forwards turn almost the entire show into one giant flashback. It cheapens what’s happening in the present by showing us the consequences.
Sometimes those flash-forwards are lies: They use unreliable narration, deceptive editing or trick camera angles to pretend something will happen when it won’t. But that breaks the trust between viewer and show, which greatly harms future seasons.
How I Met Your Mother had to bend over backwards to try to fulfill the many promises the show had made about the future and still surprise the audience. The result had the fans angry and revolting.
Other times, the flash-forwards are the exact truth, creating expectations difficult to fulfill: The reveal of Lost’s flash-forwards made for an iconic moment, for example, but the story struggled to fill in the gaps in a logical, satisfying way.
Mind you: A flash-forward can work brilliantly in long-form non-fiction journalism. Even novels, to a certain extent, can benefit from this sort of structure.
But a serialized TV drama is not a novel or long-form non-fiction. It is a serialized TV drama – and one of its biggest strengths should be its agility. The story is a living, breathing thing that can veer off in wonderfully surprising directions. A plotline that’s not working can be excised, a character can be killed off, a more interesting thread can be pulled. Most of the time, it’s not the vision of one mind, it’s a room of writers. Epiphany can strike and transform a show at any time.
Actors quit. Actors die. Ratings fall. Writers change their minds.
In some cases, a flash-forward can work within a single episode. A Breaking Bad episode opens with the serial image of bullet shells on the hood of a car, bouncing as hydraulics send the car up-and-down. It’s a tease more than a spoiler. It’s a poetic image that hooks and intrigues.
But Breaking Bad stumbled when it tried to create season-long flash-forwards. It famously began its 5th season with a bearded Walter White opening up his trunk to reveal a massive machine gun. At the time the writers had no idea what it would be used for.
The result was the worst of both worlds: The constraints of a perfectly planned show and the lack of foresight of an improvised one. Partly as a consequence, the finale to one of TV’s best shows of all time was, ultimately, disappointing.
How To Get Away With Murder doesn’t aspire to Breaking Bad’s greatness. But it wants to be surprising, fun and fast-paced – and flash-forwards make every one of those goals more difficult.
I sometimes wonder if the people in charge of and concerned about downtown Spokane live in the same downtown Spokane that I do. If you based your knowledge of Spokane on the comment threads of local news outlets, letters to the editor and the loudest opinions within business leadership, you’d probably believe that our core is positively overrun with hoodlum youth, aggressive and dangerous panhandlers, and all-purpose chaos. On the contrary, while I do get asked for money during maybe 15 percent of my outings downtown, I don’t witness any of this behavior at a noticeable level. I notice that there are people around, on a good day, who are up to all types of things. There are business men walking five abreast on the sidewalk with coffees, people on cell phones, shoppers laden with bags, young people cradling either guitars or puppies, skaters, people in electric wheelchairs dodging through the sidewalk traffic.
In short, there are a wide variety of humans co-mingled in one space. They don’t all look the same, they don’t all share the same values, and the day-to-day of their lives vary wildly. This is as true next to River Park Square and in Riverfront Park as it is at the STA Plaza. However, the characterization of the Plaza’s inhabitants and users casts bus riders as dangerous, poor (which is bad and probably also their fault, right?), and a nuisance to polite society. I have a hunch that the critics of the Plaza are comprised of the group least qualified to have an opinion on the matter: people with cars who almost never ride the bus. I tend to agree with what Bruce Nourish pointed out in his Seattle Transit Blog post about the Plaza feud: “What really ails Spokane’s retail plutocrats is not the people of the Plaza, but their own ignorance."
Part of my ongoing frustration as a decades-long STA patron is people’s attitude toward bus ridership. Their complaints about slow service, or a lack of service in their area, or lack of connections make up a self fulfilling prophecy. Without the patronage of more people in Spokane, equalling more money for STA’s operation, the services cannot improve. More people ride the bus than ever before in Spokane now and it’s due to many factors. And they are all kinds of people representing a cross section of the bottom 80 percent of income earners in the area. Here are some photos and short interviews that I conducted on Wednesday, Aug. 20 around 3 pm on the south side of the Plaza. I hope that for those who are ignorant about bus ridership in Spokane or in general, these examples can show you that there really isn’t anything to be afraid of. After all, can you read while driving or have an undistracted conversation with your kids or friends?
Jarrod commutes to Cheney for both work and school. He said that, “The only bummer [about taking the bus] is that it takes longer... but that’s what books and smartphones are for.” Overall he describes STA as a good transit system. “They stop frequently. You don’t have to walk too far to find a spot.” As for the Plaza’s downtown location, he wouldn’t change it. “It is literally in the middle of everything.”
On Wednesday, Scott was heading out the the VA. He said that he takes the bus at least six times a week, mostly to appointments. His favorite aspect of riding the bus? “It’s really convenient, pretty close to where I want to go.” He, too, had a book with him for company on the ride. Other than putting up with the occasional crying baby, he doesn’t mind taking the bus. He was familiar with the concerns about the Plaza. “A lot of kids and homeless come here, but they will be around no matter what, no matter where it is."
Khaled takes the bus to and from work every day. “I have a good time and the people are fun," he said. “This is a good place, because you can learn how to go anywhere from downtown."
When I told Traci I was taking pictures to show that bus riders are just normal people, she laughed and agreed. “It’s just a big pot of everyone here,” she said. On Wednesday, Traci was on her way to the Maple CHAS clinic, but she takes the bus anywhere she needs to go for the most part. I asked her to describe the Plaza in three words. “Not that bad!”
Steven was on the way home from taking the placement exams at SFCC when I talked to him on Wednesday. He doesn’t take the bus often, but said that the downtown location “seems to be working.” His only complaint was that the bus takes a while, but that he’s glad it’s “fairly cheap to ride."
Mohammed takes the bus anywhere he needs to go in town. On Wednesday, he was even getting ready to move from an old apartment to a new one using the bus. He didn’t seem discouraged by this task and said, “It is a great bus! I love to be able to use it every day.”
With Mohammed was Mahadi, who didn’t want his photo taken. He was on his way to his school, just across from the Riverside entrance of the Plaza, the Spokane College of English Language. He doesn’t have a car, like many other bus riders and me. He said, “It is a great thing that this city has the bus because all the people depend on it."
Sam was about to catch the bus into Browne’s Addition to go to Rosauers, one of the only grocery stores near downtown, when I asked her about STA. She takes the bus almost every day and described it as loud. “It can be kind of sad sometimes. But it also opens people up for conversations. Like, do you want to talk for 20 minutes? And I guess that can be a good thing."
Bret has been riding the bus for 10 years. On Wednesday, he had just finished up working downtown. He was very familiar with the ongoing disapproval of the Plaza from certain business interests in the city center. He said, “Moving it isn’t a solution. It’s just an easy target. [The critics] have to blame their poor business acumen on something and right now it’s the homeless and the street kids. But where else do they have to hang out?” He pointed out that as a business person, he likes having the Plaza right in the middle of things because it brings people, many of whom are customers, to the businesses who rely on them for success.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Spokane," he said. “But in some ways, Spokane is still really in an early 20th century mindset. The 1950’s aren’t coming back."
The hazy, smoky air still makes my stomach curdle with fear.
I was 4 when the regional disaster known as Firestorm torched the Spokane area. On Oct. 16, 1991, heavy winds downing power lines sparked more than 90 separate fires around the Inland Northwest, burning more than 100 homes and blackening the land all around. I vividly recall Firestorm’s terrifying uncertainty, and now view it as one of the most impactful events of my childhood, growing up on 20 wooded, rural acres in Stevens County.
After the first flames ignited and sent embers flying, my parents quickly packed up our valuable belongings — antique furniture, family heirlooms, photographs and important documents — and rented a storage unit in Spokane. My mom packed clothing and we made the short drive to my grandparent’s 80-acre farm above our home on a hill. It was safer there, with more routes out if the fire moved in. One night during the fires, my dad took me outside, lifting me up on his shoulders. There, in my striped nightgown, I saw the mountain vista in front of our homes glowing with orange flames against the black night sky.
We were lucky. The firestorm burned for days all around the region, but our land and our homes remained untouched. It was the first memory I’d have of many more fires to threaten our rural community. Each one filled me with more terror than the last. Just as anxiety-causing were summer’s hot, dry spells, lightning storms and windy days that all meant high fire danger. The fires alone didn’t make fear course through my body, but the materialistic thought of losing everything in a fire’s wake.
As residents across the Inland Northwest woke up this past Friday morning to a brown sky blocking out the rays of a blood red sun, the dense ashy air left a fine, grayish-black powder on everything it touched. Street lights stayed on long past sunrise, and the world was cast in an ominous, yet eerily beautiful, goldish glow. These remnants of wildfire stirred up my long-dormant feelings of dread. I tried to imagine the emotions of residents of Central Washington — the people in Brewster and Pateros who lost everything in the still burning Carlton Complex fire. In place of a desire for empathy was something stronger — guilt. Guilt that here I was, conjuring up old childhood fears of losing my home to a raging wildfire when they just had.
When natural disasters — tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes, tsunamis and forest fires — strike, our collective reaction is to consume breaking news reports. We become almost morbidly fascinated by the images and stories of destruction fed to us, all so accessible on our social media accounts. At the same time we ache for the losses of others due to what’s largely attributed a random event. The Carlton fire was sparked by lightning; the whims of changing winds paired with the intense summer heat propelled it toward towns with little warning.
Every region of the world comes with its own set of natural threats. Those who choose to call these places home do so with some understanding of the chance they might be affected by a mostly unpredictable disaster. But until one happens to or close to us, that probability doesn’t dominate our thoughts.
Most of us will never lose our homes to wildfires. But when we see it happen on such a tragically large scale like the Carlton Complex fire, we’re reminded of our vulnerability to the odds and also comforted by it. Homes can be rebuilt and things replaced, but the scars of any disaster will live on in the landscape and its victims memories forever. ♦
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